Paris 1900: The Great World's Fair
Dreams they were often called at the time, and like dreams the great European exhibitions of the nineteenth century have long awaited the enterprising psychoanalyst to probe beneath the exalted hopes, the exotic fantasies, and uncover for us the buried fears and sordid anxieties whose existence we have been taught to suspect whenever caprice becomes too willful or too extravagant. Eighteen-fifty-one, 1855, 1862, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900—these dates at least (and there are many more) have long been familiar to anyone interested in the period, and most of them summon up some dominating visual image; the Crystal Palace, one-man exhibitions by Courbet and Manet, the Eiffel Tower—real achievements that have left indelible impressions on our culture. But much of the rest has sunk into oblivion, leaving behind little more than nostalgia-inducing wood engravings in old illustrated journals, evoked usually to make some point about historicism and bad taste before we are hurried on to the Pioneers of the Modern Movement.
“In the twentieth century there will be an extraordinary nation. This nation will be great, which will not prevent it from being free. It will be illustrious, rich, thoughtful, peace loving and friendly to the rest of humanity…. A battle between Italians and Germans, between English and Russians, between Prussians and Frenchmen will appear to it like a battle between the inhabitants of Picardy and Burgundy appears to us….” Thus Hugo, in exile, began his salute to the Exhibition of 1867; and his extraordinary rhapsody—forty-four pages of unfulfilled prophecy—hangs over the whole series, its rhetoric obtruding itself between us and the giant machines and reconstructed colonial villages and palaces of art like some almost impenetrable mist. If the theory has been proved so false, can the reality have ever had any point? Closer studies of what was actually on view will rapidly show that our first impressions are as incomplete as they are unfair, that the Exhibitions were not just symptoms of a disordered mind, but also milestones along a road that was worth pursuing. But the few modern critics who have turned a cautious eye on them have not generally been indulgent. Werner Hofmann, whose chapter “Mankind on View” in his Art of the Nineteenth Century contains by far the most stimulating general discussion of the subject (but who is not so much as mentioned by Professor Mandell), is uncompromisingly hostile. He sees in them only the expression “of a fragmented and purely eclectic sense of reality…a great mystical swindle not without compulsive power.” Unlike Pevsner he is not so much worried by the prevalent styles as by the whole conception of an exhibition in which art and machines alike become mere merchandise, divorced from real functions and real meanings, to be worshipped like fetishes for their own sakes. His hostility is compelling, as is the remorseless logic with which he seizes on every inconsistency, every absurdity. For him the great exhibitions were only another means (among so many) whereby the nineteenth century hoped to evade reality.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.